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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management at American Public University
As 2018 unfolds in the U.S. amid racial tensions not seen in the nation since the 1960s, I searched for reasons of such animus. I thought racial tensions had lessened since the election of President Obama. But unfortunately, that appears not the case.
I listened to African-American leaders speak of racial tension after Obama’s election. I listened during the last decade. The racial divide is still there and last year, it seemed to increase. I had hoped otherwise.
I have two sayings on my wall at my home desk. Reading them offers a valuable lesson amid potential strife and stress. One saying is by Theodore Roosevelt about “The Man in The Arena.” It is his face that “is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly….” The other is by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Reviewing the famous words of Dr. King still gives me hope: “I have a dream that one day, little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Although Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech was relevant decades ago, it does not seem enough today to blunt the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the White Nationalists or just the plain old feelings of racial hatred just under the surface.
I found a new companion to my vision of Dr. King’s message in the thoughts of Barbara Cooney, a children’s book author, illustrator and twice Caldecott Medal laureate. Cooney was described in the December 2017 issue of The Atlantic as a writer who taught children through books to “hear about the real stuff of life, about good and evil, love and hate, life and death.” She is described as a person who would not talk down to a child, much as I imagine Dr. King would not.
Cooney, who died in 2000 at age 83, saw in her children’s books a path or a journey through life. She used her writing to “reflect how a society sees its young and itself.” Dr. King’s birthday anniversary, now a national holiday, is just a few days away on January 15. Boy, I can hear him saying something similar, or nodding in agreement.
What if Dr. King had been known for writing children’s books for uncertain times? What if Dr. King had not led the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, during the height of the 1965 civil rights protests? Would he have been able to create a social wave by white children and the children of people of color and different religions?
What Artwork and Ideals Would Dr. King Use in His Books?
If Dr. King had been a writer and illustrator of children’s books, I wonder what colorful drawings he would depict in his books. Would they be serene scenes of children of color and white children playing together? Or would they be Dr. Seuss-like drawings with oversized and outlandish houses and cars and people’s hair in strange shapes?
When I read about the legacy of Barbara Cooney and saw how she influenced generations of children to become caring, solid citizens, I would think that Dr. King would embrace her passion, hopes and dreams for children.
If Dr. King had been a children’s author, he might have said, “By reflecting the attitudes and aspirations of children, we help shape the world that those children will grow up to inherit.”
Or he might have said “that children are moral and intellectual agents – and should be taught to see themselves as such.”
What a powerful statement for the young trapped in the ghettos of our cities and forgotten neighborhoods of our small towns! I can hear him from the pulpit bellowing out such words in that special cadence of his with such confidence that you listened with hope.
Would Dr. King begin his children’s books with a harsh statement of doom for children of impoverishment? Cooney does begin one of her children’s books with what appears to be a cruel remark: “From the beginning, the baby was a disappointment to her mother.”
Can you imagine Dr. King writing such an opening sentence for a poor woman of color to read to her child? How would such a children’s story end? Would that child grow up to be a victim gunned down in the streets, perhaps by a gang member or by the police, or arrested for armed robbery, like those we see on the nightly TV news?
I make a point not to offend anyone. But just imagine if Dr. King were to write such a story. Just as in Cooney’s story, in his story the child would eventually be found by a mentor or a caring person.
That mentor or caring person would help that young girl or boy find their footing and discover their strengths. They would learn to think for themselves and become mentors to other lonely girls or boys.
As mentioned in The Atlantic essay, Adlai Stevenson’s eulogy at the United Nations General Assembly, the child “would rather light candles than curse the darkness” seems so appropriate to a children’s book written by Dr. King.
I can see children coming out on a special night for Dr. King and raising lit candles in their neighborhood. Imagine what would happen if a poor section of town, known for drugs, gangs and nightly shootings, would see a wave of children on the street each holding up just one candle.
Maybe the children would break into song. What song would that be?
Today’s Children Face an Uncertain Future and Need More Bravery than Previous Generations
The future of America’s youth of all colors is uncertain. Today’s children face a new world and must be braver than the Baby Boomer generation that grew up listening to the words of Dr. King, live and in your face.
King was larger than life in the 1960s. He exuded confidence and spoke of dreams for us all. He wanted the next generation of children to face fear and uncertainty without regard for the color of their skin or their religious beliefs, whether those beliefs were Muslim, Christian or Jewish.
I have a friend who is the principal of a career and technical center for 11th and 12th graders seeking to jump start their careers by earning a certificate in a field such as logistics, firefighting or culinary arts. That friend tells me he understands what it takes to empower our young people.
“I have been in education for nearly 25 years and there isn’t a day that goes by where students continue to amaze me,” he says. His teachers know what Dr. King said and demonstrate what Cooney wrote about.
Children need constant reinforcement of hope, life, death and dreams through stories. Today, too many teachers in K-12 expect that students from poor backgrounds will not do well academically. So why should their instructors care? Poverty seems to be an excuse to look the other way.
Maybe it is time to honor Dr. King even more than a national holiday. Perhaps we need to honor him with a new focus on children and racial equality, not by the constant drumbeat of street shootings or by taking a knee for racial injustice. Maybe Dr. King’s message needs a few more good stories for children, a few more candles lit in all of our neighborhoods.
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About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.